At a child care center in East Flat Rock, children grow by playing in nature.
How many ways can you play with a stick? You can break it in pieces, you can draw in the dirt with it, you can talk about it, you can share it with a friend. A baby on her belly with a stick in her hand could be making discoveries that light up her brain.
Children’s brains develop most between birth and 36 months, says Vanessa Gilliam, who runs Nessa’s Young’uns, a nature play center in East Flat Rock. “So every experience that you can give them is helping to turn all those little brain cells on.”
Think about climbing a hill versus climbing on plastic equipment, she says. “On climbing equipment there’s only so much you can do—climb up, climb down, climb up, climb down. On a hill, while they’re rolling down, they might find a bug. Or they might turn over and all of the sudden notice there’s clouds in the sky. Or notice that the ground’s wet or the ground’s cold. Or, oh, there’s a hole, let me see what’s down in that hole. It’s so open ended and that’s what we want. We want to promote that open ended play, because play is how children learn.”
Vanessa is a mother of eight children and a grandmother to seven “so far.” Born and raised in northern Henderson County, she raised her family across the road from where she grew up. “I grew up in the woods,” she says. “I grew up playing outside. And my own children, they got to play outside, they got to play in the mud.”
But a lot about childhood has changed. Parents worry about bee stings and scratches and falls and kids getting dirty. In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe how children are missing out on the emotional, intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual benefits of time in nature. Now, those children are starting to have children. Vanessa says, “The young people that are having kids now, they didn’t even play outside like that.”
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Nature Play Center
When Vanessa took her first job at a child care center almost 30 years ago, there was a class you had to take to work there. “Of course, I wasn’t wanting to be a teacher,” she says. “You had to have a bachelor’s degree to be a lead teacher and I wasn’t anything about that. I had never had any dream about going to college really. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m almost in my 30s, I’m too old to go to school.’
“I took that one class because we had to and I just got interested in development. I said, ‘I’ll never get my associate’s degree, I’ll just take a class or two.’ But the more I took the more interested I got. Eventually I ended up getting my associate’s degree and then I went on and got my bachelor’s degree and I just got my masters degree in May in early child care.”
She started offering child care in her home twelve years ago. Then, she and her husband, Ray Gilliam, saw an opportunity to move into a larger space. A year ago this month, they opened Nessa’s Young’uns, with space for over 50 children, from ages four weeks to five years.
The facility is in a business park, with a fenced yard. When they moved in, the yard was a blank expanse of pavement and bare ground with some scattered play equipment. “The space was what I would call dull,” Vanessa says.
So, they started to transform it. They worked with NC State’s Natural Learning Initiative to create plans for the play center, which show an expanded yard, a slide built into a bank, shade trees, garden planters, a mud kitchen, balancing logs, a sandpit, a water play area, and other features.
It will take time and money to realize that vision, which Vanessa anticipates completing within two years. The Natural Learning Initiative provided starter funds, and some of the parents have donated time and materials.
Nessa’s also had help from Tom Fanslow, the land protection director at Conserving Carolina, who is advising on native trees and plants—which ones attract butterflies, which produce colorful berries, which would grow well in a given spot—and donating plants. Currently, the play area includes natural elements like logs, stones, mud, sand, and flowers. Gourds grow on a teepee of sticks and there’s a short tunnel of vines to crawl or peek through.
Even the simplest things in nature can fascinate a small child. Vanessa says, “The other day, the sun was so warm out there and one of the children, I could tell they were just sitting there feeling that rock. Then they got down and put their face on it. And then they turned around and put their foot on it, because they actually figured out, my skin is feeling this warm rock.”
Why Play Outside?
Nature helps children learn, but there are many more benefits. Vanessa says she sees children with attention deficit disorder become more focused. And children can release tension so they’re calmer.
“It’s not just about energy, I’ve got to run and play, it’s more about tension,” she says. “Even with the toddlers and the ones that can talk very well, maybe they don’t know what’s bothering them. They don’t know that they’ve had a nightmare, but they know that something’s not right. Or mom’s worried about paying the bills. They don’t know that, but they know mom’s tense. So, of course, it affects them emotionally. So when they can go outside, it gives them that little sigh of relief, just like it does us.”
In some cases, Vanessa says, “We might be the only chance the children get to play outside.”
But nature play can also spill over into family life. One time, Vanessa asked families to take their children outside and collect things that they find interesting. One set of parents decided to take their little son up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Vanessa says, “They posted just a beautiful video of their little boy, he’s not even two yet. There was a bunch of butterflies that come through and he was running around and hollering, and all the sudden he would stop: he’s seen the butterflies and he would just stop and look at them. And then he would run and try to chase the butterflies. It was a beautiful video.
And that’s what we want. We always want the families to see that. They said, ‘If you hadn’t of told me that, we wouldn’t ever have went to the parkway this weekend and we might not have got to see him explore and love nature like he does now.’”
Rose Jenkins Lane is the communications director of Conserving Carolina, a land trust based in Hendersonville. She writes the monthly Stories of the Land column in the Hendersonville Times-News. You can also read this article on the newspaper website.